Viewing America from the Outside

The L Train runs from Manhattan’s West Side to Brooklyn’s Canarsie…but your typical subway map doesn’t take into account the occasional side trip to, say, Montana or maybe Thailand, China, or even the Grand Canyon. Such unforeseen sojourns are usually available just outside the Bedford Avenue subway station. That’s where Richard Joseph regularly sets up a table to sell his book, “Transcend,” at a cut-rate to passersby in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn.

Sir Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Fine…it’s what you might expect from a guy named “bacon,” but how the hell did a kid from Queens decide to serve up his philosophical travelogue to hungry fauxhemians on the streets of Williamsburg?

He’s taught, he’s played guitar in a heavy metal band, he’s run a small business, and (of course) he’s traveled…and we’re not talking about your standard tourist trap/all-inclusive/package deal kind of travel. His was (and still is) the penniless backpacker mode. As a writer, Rich Joseph has something that cannot be taught…cannot be faked. Rich Joseph has a voice.

Tossed and turned on a small boat to China, Joseph writes of being “huddled on the floor like refugees among a mob scene of Koreans and ethnic Chinese who were chattering up a storm, whooping it up, drinking bottle after bottle of rotgut Korean rice wine, while chewing away pungent dried out squid that made the entire room smell like day-old sex.” A nightmare? Sure, but Joseph sums it up like this: “It was misery; a nostalgic misery; the kind you don’t regret even a minute of, with the passing of time, so long as it had created a lasting memory.”

“Transcend” offers stories of travel, stories of despair, stories of hope, stories that will make you laugh…but not in the snarky style that passes for voice these days. Joseph blends a street realism that Bukowski would admire with a compassionate, tireless craving for something deeper…something real. The type of reality-based humanity embodied by an Arundhati Roy.

Speaking of Roy, she has called America “a strangely insular place,” adding: “When you live outside it, and you come here, it’s almost shocking how insular it is.”

Recognizing one’s blinkered existence from within the States is a little harder than from Roy’s external view. We Americans embrace our isolation, preferring not to know more about the people who starve and the people who live where the bombs never stop falling. We’d rather avoid conversations about how our tax dollars are spent. “Transcend” is one of those conversations; but not in the annotated “radical book” sense. Instead, Joseph spins yarns, recalls episodes, and muses broadly on the American way of seeing and doing things.

There’s was a lot of talk after the last election about fleeing Dubya’s America. Since such hyperbole is based upon the faulty perception that the Bush regime is uniquely corrupt and repressive, it’s staying power is debatable. Rich Joseph, on the other hand, has been pushing Americans to get out of the country for years…and it has little to do with any Yale-educated war criminal. To Joseph, hitting the road means breaking your routine, opening your mind, and snapping out of the consumer trance.

Whether traversing the country or the globe, Joseph manages to connect…with history, with locations, and most of all: with his fellow humans. You’ll be turning pages feverishly as self-imposed barriers and stereotypes vanish from Arizona to Southeast Asia. You’ll meet Souvenir Man and Rasta Man and India’s Mama. Watch out for those parasites (both intestinal and human) and the sudden rainstorms and the tarantulas that visit in the warm Indian night. Most of all, as Joseph’s journeys progress, you’ll share his wonder, his fear, and his gratitude…not to mention his shame.

Eighteen-hour bus rides through a bumpy Asian countryside might have helped Rich Joseph better appreciate his privileged life in urban America but a few months away from the strip malls, the no-win money chase, and even the indoor plumbing also served as a wake-up call about all we need and all we think we need.

Sharing a home with a family in Goa, India, Joseph was taken by their lifestyle…a lifestyle that no red-blooded American would want (or think they’d want). “To see this family so intact,” he writes, “so intimate, so unriddled with insecurities, envy, or internal strife seemed to silently ridicule the First World existence that I would so be returning to. To be among them and to feel their harmony and solitude firsthand made me feel almost ashamed of the life I had derived from and had taken so seriously.”

So what led him to hawk his prose on Bedford Avenue upon his return to that life?

“I’ve always found it great to be able to bring something to people, and to be able to see their reactions,” Joseph explains.

“Transcend” has much to offer the intrepid subway commuter…and slowing down long enough to hear his pitch is sort of the idea.

“All I need is a few seconds to show them some of the feedback the book has received, as well as the price that I’m selling it at,” he explains. “It’s a no-lose situation for them, especially since the book is the same price as the miserable train ride they just endured.”

(For more on “Transcend,” stop by the Bedford Avenue station on NYC’s L Train line or better yet: visit http://www.transcend.ws)

MICKEY Z. is the author of several books and he can be found on the Web at: http://www.mickeyz.net.

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Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here. This piece first appeared at World Trust News.  

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